“It’s fleek son!” These are words you wouldn’t expect to come flying out of Hugh Masekela’s mouth. But expect to see a different – a more candid side to the Grammy award-winning artist as he co-hosts the newest late night comedy television show, The Bantu Hour, with writer and comedian Kagiso Lediga.
The show premiered on November 7 on SABC2. It’s been a busy couple of weeks for the South African jazz musician – packed with radio and newspaper interviewers. The Mail & Guardian spoke to Masekela ahead of The Bantu Hour debut about the concept of the show. The title makes some reference to when the apartheid government introduced a bantu programme on the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) radio before the 1950s.
The bantu programme was an hour-long show dedicated to playing music by African artists. This was the only time that African musicians received airplay on SABC radio. Masekela recalls the show’s popularity among Africans. “The Bantu programme aired on Saturday mornings and they’d play the hits of the week,” Masekela tells Mail & Guardian. “So on a Saturday morning you walk through any European neighbourhood, and it will be blasting through the suburbs. You didn’t have to have a radio to hear the Bantu programme.”
According to him, by the time he’d become a professional musician the SABC had long removed the bantu programme on radio and had introduced Radio Bantu, which consisted of Radio Zulu, Radio Xhosa and Radio Sesotho. Now about 55 years later the establishment of Radio Bantu, the SABC is airing a different kind of “bantu” hour. And although the word bantu was previously associated with oppression and a condescending tone, The Bantu Hour takes a sneering approach to the word bantu. “They [apartheid government] tried to make it [the word bantu] a derogatory word but they didn’t know that it wasn’t just a South African word but an ethnic group that’s all over southern Africa.”
It was Lediga who suggested the name for the show and now they use it candidly throughout the show. Lediga, Masekela and their team shot 13 episodes in studio but only wrapped up production in November. Four years ago Masekela and his long-time friend Themba Vilakazi came up with a concept for a late night comedy show – one that’s influenced by television programmes such as Saturday Night Live and Late Show with David Letterman, where music meets comedy in a talk show format.
At first Masekela thought it was an absurd concept for local television – a concept that probably wouldn’t win people over. South Africa already had the two-time International Emmy award nominated comedy show, Late Nite News with Loyiso Gola (LNN) on e.tv. Was there room for yet another comedy show? The Bantu Hour is not driven by politic news like LNN, Masekela says. Lediga, who also directed the show with his sister Karabo Lediga and John Barker, often opens the show with a monologue that shares commentary on South Africa’s current affairs. “There is no politics, but of course politics implies itself in everything,” says Masekela.
“I think people will really enjoy The Bantu Hour because a comedy show is often socio-politically educating and it’s a much needed show because at a time when the world is going through what it is going through, we need a little more laughter in our lives.” Masekela expected the worst outcome when he pitched The Bantu Hour to Lediga’s production company. “Before the meeting I said to myself ‘but these people know this type of thing [show]; they are just going to laugh at us’.”
To his surprise, Lediga, who is also the creator and director of LNN, was sold on Masekela and Vilakazi’s idea. “I was very disappointed that they really loved it because it was going to involve me being in the show. My plate is already so full.” He shot the show in-between his international tour in Germany and England and while he was working on his upcoming new album – a first in four years. The album is due for release in 2016.
Working with funny men
And although music remains his first love – Masekela is not trying to label himself a comedian. He is, however, familiar with the craft and enjoys watching stand-up comedy.
“I attend some stand-up shows because I like to laugh and I like to talk rubbish myself”.
He found it quite challenging to keep his composure on set with all the funny men they’ve had as guests on the show. “We’ve had some ridiculous comedians on the show. Sometimes I can’t talk, I just start crying because I’m laughing so much.” The guest list includes comedians TolAssMo, Chester Missing and Celeste Ntuli. There is a desk on the one of half of the set, where Lediga sits and interviewers his guest, with a coffee mug in sight because what would a late night show be without a mug? The other half features a stage where Masekela performs with a four-piece band and music guests in front of a live studio audience. Some of the music guests include HHP, Nakhane Toure, Ziyon, Loyiso Bala and Nomisupasta.
From time to time Maskela “hackles” or asks questions from across the stage in an exchange of banter between him and Lediga. “When I watch TV I find that a lot of information that we get is lightweight stuff. It’s watered down,” says Masekela. “Personally I just think when I came back from exile 25 years ago, South Africa was one of the most intelligent societies in the world and I’ve watched it being dumbed down to a point where people are afraid to speak.”
Though it’s not rooted in political satire, The Bantu Hour is like a much-needed facelift to a sagging SABC local late night talk show scene that hasn’t picked up momentum since the canning of the show Late Night With Kgomotso on SABC 2 in 2010. The Bantu Hour will also see the return of some of the cast of SABC 1’s popular sketch comedy programme The Pure Monate Show (2003) on our television screens. Expect some comedy sketches written by some of South Africa’s finest comedians, Christopher Steenkamp, Muzi Dhlamini, Stig Sesanti, Nina Hastie, Dusty Rich, Lazola Gola and Jason Goliath, just to name a few. Also expect more out-of character moments by Masekela.
Catch The Bantu Hour on Saturday at 9pm on SABC2.